D-Block Europe: The Blueprint – Us vs Them review – UK rap stars box themselves in

Last year, Young Adz, one half of D-Block Europe, claimed that the Lewisham duo had amassed a cache of 700 unreleased tracks. On the face of it, that sounds like the kind of expansive myth-building you too might indulge in had you just sold out two nights at London’s 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace. But then you look at the duo’s release schedule and think: well, maybe they have. The Blueprint – Us vs Them is heralded as D-Block Europe’s debut album but it’s their fourth full-length in 12 months. At 29 tracks and 93 minutes, it’s their longest yet, but only just: 2019’s mixtape PTSD also featured 29 tracks, but clocked in at a more economical 88 minutes. You could never accuse Young Adz and partner Dirtbike LB of lacking a work ethic.

More than any of their UK rap peers, their sound looks to America for inspiration. Their US connections have been strong from the start. Their name is a reference to the neighbourhood in Yonkers regularly mentioned by Jadakiss, who attempted to sign Young Adz when the latter was 15 years old; the big hit from their 2018 collaborative mixtape with Yxng Bane was called Gucci Mane, and the Atlanta trap in which said rapper deals is clearly a primary musical and lyrical inspiration. Indeed, the lyrics are so thick with US influence that the occasional British reference feels jarring among the stuff about bandos and double cups. “I was trappin’ in Dorset” offers The Blueprint’s opener, Destiny - or at least, that’s what it appears to say behind a liberal slathering of Auto-Tune.

The rest of The Blueprint suggests one reason why D-Block Europe might be so productive: the vast majority of its 29 tracks give every impression of having been written to a formula. The music tends to a pretty strict pattern: melancholy figure picked out on guitar or piano overlaid with icy, ghostly-sounding electronics. It’s effective in conjuring a bleak, stoned haze, although it makes the occasional moments of deviation, however minimal, leap out: when Last Night in Marbella concludes by going into reverse, or the bass line on Whistle, so overdriven that it takes on a satisfyingly percussive quality.

The lyrics have flashes of wit – there’s a good line on Last Night in Paris about not being able to pronounce the name of the road where your hotel is located – and a certain British bathos sometimes winningly intrudes: “Don’t take no drugs like me,” cautions Top Thai, “I find it hard to pee.” There are glancing references to Black Lives Matter and coronavirus on Codeine & Fashion, but The Blueprint largely seems to be an extended exercise in saying the same things over and over again as if rearranging a fridge-magnet poetry set, albeit a fridge magnet poetry set that contains the words “lean”, “Percocet”, “Louis Vuitton”, “Gucci” and “eating pussy”.

You start to wonder whether it’s simply down to a lack of fresh ideas or something more deliberate: if the repetition is intended to echo the grinding relentlessness of the life the songs describe; if the listener is supposed to feel as numb as the characters in the lyrics, hiding their doubts and fears behind an anaesthetising wall of drugs. Alternatively, it might be an album deliberately made for the streaming age, where it’s held to be a good thing if one track blends into another as it plays in the background: nothing to jolt the listener into switching to something else. Certainly, you find yourself zoning out, then zoning back in again to discover nothing’s changed: “I drink lean in the Louis store.”

Related: Sign up for the Sleeve Notes email: music news, bold reviews and unexpected extras

The best moments come when the music shakes off its listlessness: Ferrari Horses has an impressive poppy sparkle; the chorus of UFO is strong; when the lyrical mask slips, the vocals become pained, the subject matter delves affectingly into mental health (“if the streets don’t get you or put you in jail, then you might get sectioned”) or absent parenthood. Proud offers reassurances that the money dad’s accumulating will come as recompense to a daughter he rarely sees, but it doesn’t sound terribly convinced of the argument.

For the most part, however, The Blueprint is an album content to stay in its self-imposed lane. And why wouldn’t it? If it’s music made to a formula, it’s a formula that’s proved hugely successful thus far – mixtape PTSD peaked at No 4 – and the YouTube figures for its singles thus far suggest there’s no let-up in their audience’s enthusiasm for what D-Block Europe do. But, despite their work ethic, the feeling that they could do more haunts The Blueprint.

This week Alexis listened to

Raven Artson: Whatever
Glitchy, distorted, laced with high-pitched synth, sung by a man with a face full of glam-ish makeup, Whatever is an appealing, unpredictable take on pop.